Blighted lives

Christine Kinealy on why attempts to revive study of Ireland's forgotten famine are stirring mixed emotions

This year is the 150th anniversary of the Great Irish Famine or, to give it its Irish designation, An Gorta Mor (the Great Hunger). Although the Famine lasted for seven years, it was in 1847 that suffering, destitution and mortality were at their highest. In folk tradition, this year is remembered as Black '47.

The Famine was triggered by the appearance of a new form of disease on the potato crop in 1845. This mysterious disease had already destroyed part of the potato crops in North America and Europe, including England. But it was only in Ireland that such a large proportion of the population - two-fifths of the people - depended on potatoes as their staple food. In 1845, the blight ruined less than half of the potato crop, but in 1846, almost the whole crop was destroyed.

In the wake of the second failure of the potato crop, the British government (which governed Ireland at the time) established a system of public works - that is, in order to receive relief, men, women and children had to undertake hard physical labour. This labour usually involved building walls or roads. Today the "famine" roads in the west of Ireland are a visible legacy of this system of relief. Unfortunately, as a means of providing emergency relief to hungry people, already weakened by one year of shortages, the public works were a failure.

The winter months of 1846-47 witnessed a marked rise in disease, hunger and starvation. Although accurate mortality figures were not kept, the local Irish police estimated that during this period almost half a million people died of famine or famine-related diseases. The majority of these people were buried without either a funeral or a coffin. Some people died by the roadside, where they were waiting to be given employment on the public works. However, the mass unmarked famine graves which dot the Irish countryside were, until recently, either ignored or viewed with shame. It seems to have taken the passage of 150 years for the Irish people, and the Irish diaspora, to be ready to confront this tragic episode in their past.

An on-going area of debate regarding the Famine is over the question of food exports. Although the potato crop failed, Ireland was still producing massive quantities of other foodstuffs, much of which was exported to Britain. Food exports from Ireland in 1846-47 included wheat, oats, barley, whiskey, beef, ham, eggs, butter and even potatoes. Between 1846 and 1850 approximately three million cattle were exported to Britain.

Some of this food originated from ports situated in the most devastated parts of the country, such as counties Cork, Clare, Kerry and Mayo. The fact that substantial amounts of food left the country while part of the population starved has led some people to question the appropriateness of the term "famine" to the Irish situation.

Despite the passage of time, the Irish Famine still has resonances today. On a visible and quantifiable level, the Irish population has never recovered from the years of hunger and starvation. In 1841 the population of Ireland had been approximately eight-and-a-half million people. By 1851 it had fallen to over six million. But the decline did not end when good harvests returned and by 1900 it had dropped to just over four million.

On a less obvious level, the Famine helped to shape the subsequent political relationship between Britain and Ireland. This was evident in the latter part of the 19th century when Irish nationalists invoked the Famine as an example of the failure of the Act of Union of 1800 (which had joined the parliaments of Ireland and Britain). This "politicisation" of the Famine and its association with the nationalist struggle is still apparent and may have contributed to the reluctance of Irish historians until recently to write on this event. One Dublin academic even suggested that a study of the Famine might provide "ideological bullets to the IRA".

During the Famine years at least one million people left Ireland permanently. But leaving did not mean an end to the horror. Approximately 10 per cent of the emigrants died on the journey, while those who survived were often regarded as unwelcome economic refugees. Most Famine and post-Famine emigrants went to America and today it is estimated that 44 million American have Irish ancestry. Sizeable numbers also settled in Britain, Australia and South America, giving the Famine - and Irish politics - an international significance that's still evident today.

Despite the fact that the Famine was a watershed in the development of modern Ireland, until recently, there has been a "silence" in regard to remembering or studying this event. Between 1900 and 1994, only two major scholarly books were written on the subject and general history books on the 19th century downplayed or ignored it. This marginalisation was also evident in schools. In Ireland it has not been part of the curriculum for more than 40 years and over here it rarely gets a mention.

Current commemorations have helped to break this silence and more has been produced on the Famine in the past three years than in the previous 150. It is ironic, or perhaps fitting, that America has led the way in encouraging a study of the topic in the classroom. In 1996 two states, New Jersey and New York, passed legislation supporting the study of the Irish Famine in secondary schools. A number of other American states are hoping to adopt similar educational bills.

However, the fact that New York schools will examine the Famine within a human rights curriculum that also includes the holocaust has made it a source of controversy. The British ambassador in America and a number of British newspapers have objected to the passing of this legislation even before the curriculum is written. It is clear that a number of people still regard the Irish Famine as a dangerous memory that should be controlled or forgotten.

Christine Kinealy is a Fellow of the University of Liverpool. She is author of This Great Calamity: The Irish Famine 1845-52 (Gill and Macmillan, 1994) which provides a major reassessment of government policy during the Famine. Her most recent publication is A Death-Dealing Famine: The Great Hunger in Ireland, which was published by Pluto Press last month

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